Notes on Anders Esmark (2004). “Systems and Sovereignty”

Anders Esmark (2004). “Systems and Sovereignty: A systems theoretical look at the transformation of sovereignty.” Observing International Relations: Niklas Luhmann and World Politics. Edited by Mathias Albert & Lena Hilkermeier. Routledge.

I don’t have access to the book yet, just part of it from Google Books. But what I’ve been able to read so far is very good. I need to read more of Esmark’s work.


“[The] assumption that globalization necessarily implies a ‘crisis’ or even an ‘end’ of [state] sovereignty is somewhat unfortunate. . . [In fact,] the semantics of sovereignty has made use of the state the facilitate globalization.”

State sovereignty has facilitated globalization rather than hindering it. Modern politics created the difference between binding decisions and arbitrary decisions. When monarchs assumed sovereignty, there were no arbitrary decisions, or none were seen as arbitrary. This seemed to solve the problem of arbitrary decisions by religious leaders, tyrants, or unaccountable nobles

“Sovereignty facilitates globalization as a ‘semantic trick’ making political communication possible.” Sovereignty is founded on a paradox.

“Luhmann’s theory is both a sociology of differentiation and a philosophy of difference.” 

“In systems theoretical terms, sovereignty arises as a response to the paradox arising from the emergence of a functionally distinct global system of politics. . . . It is in this sense that sovereignty can be said to have always facilitated globalization: from the onset, sovereignty has served to make a global system of politics operational.” Sovereignty is a “myth” designed to conceal the paradox that makes global politics operational. “From a systems theoretical point of view, the point is that the entire process of achieving territoriality took place within a global system of politics. Globalization is not something that comes after the nation state. It was always at the core of modernity itself. . . .”

In other words, the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which is said to be the source of state sovereignty, was a product of internal relations, or transnational politics. Peace treaties between nations are produced by global politics. A treaty is a collectively binding decision.

“The driving force behind the semantic of sovereignty is thus to be found in the paradox inherent in the form of political communication within the global and autonomous system of politics–and nowhere else.”

“Generally, Luhmann specifies the medium of the political system as power. In one of his more important pieces on the semantics of the system of politics, however, Luhmann defines political communication as communication where the collectively binding decision is used as medium (Luhmann 1995 ). Power in this way comes to mean the communicative production of a collectively binding decision. In other words, political communication has to be able to tell (collectively) binding decisions from arbitrary decisions. . . For a political decision to be taken, arbitrariness and contingency will have to relegated from the decision at hand. . .  Each collectively binding decision is plagued by the fact that the collectively binding decision is never made by the collective itself. . . .” The sovereign resolves or conceals this paradox.  

Deparadoxification is not the same as solving a paradox. “If a paradox could simply be solved, it would not be a paradox.” The semantics f sovereignty never reaches full closer. “Every semantic of sovereignty so far has had limited durability.” Society provides conditions for plausibility.

Three types of sovereignty associated with different state-forms: monarchy, republic, constitutional state  (Verfassungstaat or Rechtsstaat).

“The modern political system emerges the moment the distinction between binding and arbitrary distinctions carves out a sphere from other systems incapable of drawing such a distinction, most notably religion (the church, the clergy), family and law (the nobility and their codes of conduct). When acting on a divine mandate or inherited right, there is no such thing as an arbitrary decision . . .”

Luhmann holds that the primary concern in the early texts on sovereignty was not so much international independence and internal sovereignty.”

To conceal the arbitrariness of the sovereign monarch, the monarch is invested with moral virtue or a gift for statesmanship. This distinguishes the sovereign from the tyrant. It implies that the sovereign is bound by nothing other than himself.

The liberal constitutional state deals with possibly arbitrariness through structural coupling with law.


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